Council to consider affordable housing changes
By Jeff Simms
Among the hundreds of apartments and condominiums being built in Beacon, three have been recently listed with price tags topping $1 million — presumably a first for the one-time hat city on the river.
Meanwhile, a report issued earlier this year by the non-profit Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress concluded — based on housing data from 2013, the most recent available — that nearly all homes on the market in Beacon are “unaffordable.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (and Pattern’s report) defines unaffordable as a household having to pay more than 30 percent of its gross income on housing costs, which include rent and utilities or a mortgage payment, utilities, insurance and taxes.
According to the Pattern report, the median price for a home in Dutchess County is $236,000, which, when matched up with the area’s median income of around $58,900, equates to a mortgage payment well in excess of the affordable threshold. Similarly, the Newburgh-based planning and advocacy group calculated that nearly half of the renters in Dutchess County spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
The trend is not unique to Beacon. Pattern’s analysis found that at least 90 percent of homes for sale in six communities — Beacon, Brewster, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Kingston and Peekskill — could be considered unaffordable for a household earning the median income or less.
On Monday, Aug. 1, the Beacon City Council will hold a public hearing on the first phase in a series of proposals designed to chip away at the notion that people are being “priced out” of the city. The hearing will be part of the council’s regular meeting, which begins at 7 p.m.
The hearing will focus on a proposed change that would make households earning 65 percent or less of the area’s median income (i.e., about $38,000 annually or less) eligible for reduced-cost “workforce” housing. Workforce housing differs from Section 8, or the Housing Choice Voucher program, a state and federal program which provides rental subsidies to low- and moderate-income families. The workforce law being considered in Beacon would require new developments to include a certain percentage of units at lower than market-value costs.
The second change to be discussed on Aug. 1 would establish a priority list for these residents who are eligible for workforce units. Volunteer emergency responders would top the list, followed by municipal and school system employees and current and past members of the military — people who help the community function day-to-day.
“The whole intent is to keep our emergency responders and volunteers in the city,” said City Administrator Anthony Ruggiero. “It’s [now] more of a priority, knowing what the market is and what [housing] is being sold for.”
In the months to come, Ruggiero said, the council will likely consider other changes to the housing laws. One of the more noteworthy would lower the size threshold at which builders must include affordable units. Currently, developments of 20 units or more must make the rents or sale price of at least 10 percent affordable to lower and middle-income residents. The change likely to be proposed would lower the threshold to 10 units.
Is it enough?
Joe Czajka, the senior vice president for research, development and community planning at Pattern for Progress and executive director of the organization’s Center for Housing Solutions and Urban Initiatives, said that Pattern’s report called for action “exactly like what Beacon is doing.”
“Beacon is trying to create affordable housing units within market-rate developments,” he said. “It’s a fantastic way of getting people of limited means into nicer apartment developments.”
Calling it “inclusionary zoning,” Czajka noted that market-rate units in a development essentially balance out the affordable units, making that type of mixed-use preferable to government rental subsidy programs. The method “does not segregate people,” he said, adding that “Beacon is doing the right thing.”
Yet some argue it’s not enough. “I firmly believe there are people [in Beacon] who don’t fall into those numbers, and it won’t be enough for them,” said Ali Muhammad, who represents Ward 4 on the City Council. For single mothers, for instance, “this won’t be a drop in the bucket. I do think this is an issue, and I think we’re barely scratching the surface.”
The proposals also haven’t been embraced by developers in Beacon, some of whom spoke out at a council meeting in June, saying the 10-unit threshold could make building in the city less feasible.
Council member Pam Wetherbee, who represents Ward 3, told The Current that she supports the proposed changes but agrees with Muhammad that as costs rise, some people will still be unable to afford housing.
“This type of affordable housing isn’t an answer” for low-income residents, she said. “This is more middle income. A couple who’s just starting out [for instance]; they’d have a break on their rent.”
When asked what the city can do to remain affordable, she replied with a word sure to make some in Beacon cringe: density. Citing a clause in the town of Fishkill’s zoning code, Wetherbee said there may be some benefit to allowing developers “bonus” density as a reward for including another “tier” of affordable units in a housing complex — that is, they could make some units in a building available to renters earning an even lower percentage of the AMI.
“We have to research this in further detail but from my understanding,” she said, “more density could be approved for a project with the requirement that developers allow a percentage of additional units to be made available for a lower AMI percentage, to help lower-income individuals and families afford housing.
“Would this be a reasonable trade-off by adding density for more affordable units? It could be, depending on the project,” Wetherbee added. “This gives opportunities to those that can’t afford it and helps diversify our community.”